When Helping Helps (maybe)

They say nothing we learn goes to waste.  In relation to language progress in Creole, I’d say that is true.  Every time I learn a new word I quickly find a use for it.

In the process of memorizing John 3:16 in Creole I learned the word for “eternal” (p’ap janm fini).  At the bank today I needed that word to describe the speed of the tellers: eternally slow. 

Then today I learned the word for daughter (pitit fi).  This evening a neighbor came to our gate asking for help with his sick teenage daughter who needed an operation, something wrong with her stomach.  The cost of the operation was US $70 and could I please help?  He had a stamped paper from the Dr’s office dated from yesterday with both diagnosis and cost listed.  I couldn’t tell, but wondered if the problem was perhaps a ruptured appendix.

People here often make reference to the popular book, “When Helping Hurts”  which lays out the basic premise that handing away free stuff creates unhealthy dependency and should be avoided.  It says our best intentions usually hurt people more than help people, especially when we try solving local problems through doling out cash.

In general, I agree. Nevertheless, each situation is unique, and requires wisdom.

As I listened to the father describe his situation, some advice came to mind I’d recently heard at a seminar here in Haiti.  A long-term missionary said when you move into a new neighborhood, undoubtedly a situation will arise where you are asked to give emergency medical aid to someone in the community.  He added that the manner in which you first respond will set the tone and precedent for all future dealings.  He laid out three options.

The first was to do nothing and turn the person away.  This is arguably the least compassionate response, though does certainly avoid the pitfall of creating unhealthy dependency. Some would argue this option is best for helping in the long run.  The result in reputation is having the neighborhood perceive you as seperate from the local community.  Not to mention a miser, because it’s no secret “white people” are loaded down with money.  I may not perceive myself as rich, but considering I have enough money to fly to and from Haiti at will, I’m far and away richer than the majority of people here.

The second option is to simply give the full amount of cash required.  At face value, this response seems most compassionate and even most Biblical as well.  After all, didn’t Jesus say, “Give to him who asks”?  Nevertheless, this does most certainly set up a patronage relationship.  The result in neighborhood perception is to be viewed as a pushover, a money bags, and worse yet, perhaps even a sucker (if the story wasn’t even legitimate). 

This leaves the third option of helping pay some of the costs.  The long-term missionary I was listening to implied this option is perhaps the best balance between compassionate and culturally appropriate.  It both helps the immediate need while at the same time defusing patronage dynamics.  The reputation hopefully garnered in taking this option is to be seen as one who stands in solidarity with the community, as a part of it.

As you might guess, I decided on option 3, but not before first discussing the situation in private with our Haitian yardman, getting his input into what he thought the validity of the actual need was. 

Giving the man some money, I also told him I felt quite bad about the situation and would be praying for his daughter.  His response was a thankful one and he implied he would ask others for the remainder, telling me that while he had some money of his own he had used it all on the doctors examination and tests. 

Anyways, maybe I did the right thing, hard to say, but I did feel bad because the entire bill was such a small sum ($70) it hurt to not just pay it all. What if he can’t raise the rest of the funds? What if, while he’s out collecting donations from neighbors and friends, his daughter dies of internal bleeding? All because I was following an idealistic principal of what would truly help more? Following a principal that is based, at least in part, on maintaining my own reputation in a certain light within the community?

I wrote this post to help process my own rationale for what’s best, and to get wise input from them what has more experience than myself (them what wants to share it).  I tend to over-analyze everything in life. Both a strength and a weakness. Feel free to comment.

4 thoughts on “When Helping Helps (maybe)”

  1. We also talked to this gentleman tonight, and though I didn’t have the insight as you did, chose the third option as well. We were conflicted about it, and this makes me feel a lot better about being a part of helping him without enabling him!

  2. Always tough decisions. I think it is good to be thinking ahead of time about these circumstances that come up, even if you do not come to a conclusion. We are probably SUPPOSED to be struggling with this. Not easy. Not fun. But good.

  3. Go with Jesus. He told the rich guy to sell all and give to the poor then come follow. On another occasion he said that how you treat the poor is the same as how you treat him. How would you treat Jesus? And by the way, your own eternal destination hangs in the balance … see Matt 25.

    I say the only part of helping that hurts is the book When Helping Hurts. Toss that book in the trash.

  4. Something I always wondered about: If these people are short on money and you want to give to help them, isn’t temporarily employing them for something useful an option?

    So many times when a person asks for money, either:

    They are continually wasting what they had and need to suffer the difficult consequences. Giving money in this case will short circuit their best chance to learn a healthy lesson.

    They are unable to earn money due to poor choices such as drinking, gambling, laziness, etc. In which case, some temporary employment will do them some good by giving them what they really need which isn’t money. They need to break some bad habits and can’t immediately stop the cycle of bad habits on their own.

    They have other destinations for the money other than what appears on the surface. Very real and urgent health problems in children have been the most profitable bait used by begging gangs to lure in money from the naive. Sadly, the children really do need help, but the money you give will probably end up in the wrong hands in many cases.

    And there are more scenarios, but this was just a few I could quickly think of. Keep reading and learning. Always good to hear your thoughts on things as you experience them, Nick.

    Go with Jesus. He told the disciples to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. Most people want to ignore the wisdom part because this means a lot of hard work to gain understanding, a lot of growing up from childish mindsets, and learning from mistakes and heart broken situations. God’s wisdom is always best, and we’d be better off attempting to gain a lifetime of it. Sounds like a well thought out book.

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